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Museums out of touch when catering for people with disabilities of sight

eyeBritish museums are putting too much focus on touch based exhibitions which do not provide a truly inclusive experience for many visitors with disabilities of sight, and should, instead, be using a mix of visual, non-visual and enhanced visual media, an academic from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has argued.

In a paper published in a special issue of the Disability Studies Quarterly, Dr Simon Hayhoe, a centre research associate in the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences at LSE, examines the philosophical, political and religious roots behind touch focused exhibitions which are favoured by British museums as a way to cater to people who have disabilities of sight.

He argues that the theories behind these exhibitions can be traced back to the Enlightenment, when discussions stereotyped people with disabilities of sight as completely blind, having no visual memory and being entirely disinterested in visual culture and visual elements of society. Although understanding has moved on since then, museums are still too focused on touch based exhibitions as the primary way to communicate the artworks to these visitors.

There is also too much emphasis on the use of braille, despite the fact that an estimated 95 per cent of the population do not read it, the paper suggests.

Simon Hayhoe“The reasoning behind the use of touch exhibitions and Braille can be traced back to theories from the late 17th, early 18th centuries, which took a stereotypical view of people with disabilities of sight rather than considering people with disabilities of sight according to their individual needs.” said Dr Hayhoe. “The majority of this population in the UK have partial vision, and this dogmatic belief that handwork, touch and vibration should be the main medium of communication of arts materials and artifacts, does not, in reality, serve museum visitors well.

“Art education for people with disabilities of sight should include a significant amount of visual media as well as touch, as most blind people will relate to this sense more than touch perceptions alone”, continues Dr Hayhoe.

“All forms of visual, non-visual and even enhanced visual media need to be available and accessible in museums in Britain, and British people need to be told they exist. It is only by approaching education in this manner, that we can truly say that we are providing accessibility for people with disabilities of sight.”

‘The Philosophical, Political and Religious Roots of Touch Exhibitions in 20th Century British Museums’ by Dr Simon Hayhoe, is published in the Disability Studies Quarterly.  



Simon Hayhoe, LSE, currently based in Dubai, email: simon.hayhoe@hct.ac.ae  

Jess Winterstein, LSE Press and Information Office, 020 7107 5025, j.winterstein@lse.ac.uk

1 July 2013